Jude Collins

Saturday, 29 December 2012

You murder, he kills, I clear the area

Either a number of commentators - notably from the Indo - are strangers to some of the grimmer facts of life,  or they are pretending to be shocked and horrified when they’re not. What am I talking about? I’m talking about Dessie Ellis.

Mr Ellis is a Sinn Féin TD who has never, as far as I know, made any secret of his former membership of the IRA. For several decades the IRA was engaged in a conflict/war/terrorist campaign (take your pick) against the RUC, the UDR and other British armed forces in the north. What happens in conflicts/wars/terrorist campaigns is that people try to kill each other. Put like that it sounds brutal and it is brutal. You might even say barbaric. But that’s what happens in conflicts/wars/terrorist campaigns. The winners are the ones who do the most killing or threaten to do the most killing ( cf Lloyd George’s threat of ‘terrible and immediate war’ in 1921). 

Now British documents hitherto under wraps allege that Mr Ellis was involved  in over fifty “murders” during the conflict/war/terrorist campaign in the north.  I’m not sure what Mr Ellis’s role in the IRA was, but it’s generally accepted that he played a prominent part. And since conflicts/wars/terrorist campaigns involve by their nature killings or attempted killings, the allegation could be true. Except, of course,  that conflicts/wars/terrorist campaigns don’t usually term the object of the exercise as “murder”.  We don’t say “President Truman ordered the murder of 255,000 Japanese civilians in Hiroshima”  or “Winston Churchill arranged for the murder of 25,000 Germans in Dresden” or “Between them, George Bush and Barack Obama used drone bombs to murder 2680 people, including 173 children” or “Opposition forces in Syria today murdered 18 state soldiers”. 

That’s because we don’t always disapprove of killing. We use “murder” when we want to say we disapprove, but we say ‘take out’  as in ‘Americans took out Osama bin Laden’, when we don’t think the killing was too bad an idea. When we think that the killing was a very good idea, of course, we pin ribbons and medals on the chests of the men who did the killing. Sometimes we erect statues to them.

My point? That when Indo writers such as Fiach Kelly  talk about Dessie Ellis and alleged  murder, they  mean that they disapprove of the IRA campaign in the 1970s and 1980s. Which most of us already knew. Had they been talking about the IRA campaign of Michael Collins in the second decade of the last century or the Arab Spring last year or countless other conflicts,  it’s a safe bet they would have used another word and shown considerably less moral outrage.  

Friday, 28 December 2012

I say, there's a duke outside...

The release of historical papers at this time is always interesting. Sometimes we find that politicians were swearing themselves blind that X was the case while privately confiding in others that the case was definitely Y.  There’s an ethical term for it: lying. 

The release of papers relating to the 1981 hunger strike are  particularly interesting for a number of details that emerge. That John Hume wasn’t too keen on Charlie Haughey and preferred Dessie O’Malley (although you could probably have worked that one out for yourself).  That Thatcher was flexible on the Falklands, while presenting her best Iron Maiden side to the public. And that Irish civil servants were warning the Fine Gael-Labour government to avoid having their views on the Hunger Strike match with those of republicans. This, Garret Fitzgerald was warned, could pose “real and urgent dangers” because prisoners in the south might join the hunger strike. “What if Portlaoise erupts?” his civil servants asked him.

But the two I like best are those involving the Catholic Church. The Pope apparently sent a personal message telling Sands it was his duty as a Catholic to come off the Hunger Strike. Sands responded by saying he’d suspend it for five days if the British engaged in negotiations. The British reported this by telling the Irish government that Sands “had not responded” to the Pope’s demand.  Only when questioned further did they  concede that  when they said Sands had “not responded” they meant that he had not agreed to the Pope’s demand. See what I mean about public face and private reality? And what we ethicists  call ‘lying’?

The other  (I don’t know whether to laugh or weep here) was the visit to Long Kesh of the Duke of Norfolk, apparently the top Catholic in the British nobility. He spoke to several hunger-strikers, trying to use his Catholicism as a lever to end the fast. Fr Tom Toner, a chaplain to Long Kesh prisoners at the time, to his eternal credit, wrote to the Duke:  "Your attitude and views caused unnecessary hardship for a family already bewildered and distressed by the imminent death of their son”.  When the Duke received this message, it caused, we're told, "his hackles to rise". Hello, I’m British but I’m a Catholic Duke, you chaps really should stop all this and let's have no backchat from the padres either, please. 
You couldn’t make it up. 

Thursday, 27 December 2012

On lop-sidedness and neutrality

Don't shoot the messenger but do have a look at his/her track-record. I'm fresh and panting from the Nolan Show look back at the year that was in it, and he has (or had - it's taped) four commentators on. They were Alex Kane, Finola Meredith, Andrea McVeigh and  Denis Murray.  Now the theory is that all commentators here come at events from a detached viewpoint which allows them to see the Truth, unlike other people who are mired in prejudice and one-sidedness. To which I would reply with a rude word only I'm working up to going off swearing for the New Year. Let's not say we had four unionist commentators  but let's say we had no sign of a commentator with a nationalist perspective. It's a bit like the British-identity thing - what we've been taught to accept is that a civilized unionist perspective is the decent, unbiased view to take and all else has the whiff of cordite to it. By the way I'm arguing this on purely political stance - I've met and talked with all of the above and I've found them pleasant, friendly people of considerable intelligence. So I promise you there are no old personal grudges involved here or sour grapes.

On the other hand, I may be doing them an injustice. I listened to only the first twenty minutes or so. The topic under discussion was  unionist working-class alienation. We heard several views - that the press and commentators treated them unfairly, that the flag was the last straw, that their educational under-achievement is holding them back, that Catholics (read that as nationalist, please) have a sense of coherence, discipline because of their religious background, whereas unionist tend to be much more fragmented because of their religious background. There could be some truth in that, although I really get good and growly when I hear people talking about Protestants and Catholics when in a great number of cases they aren't Protestants or Catholics. But the one thing I didn't hear discussed - maybe they got to it later - was that the flag-protest people were called onto the streets by the two unionist leaders, Robinson and Nesbit, Robinson with the clear intention of doing some political damage to Naomi Long. Odd, that. You'd think people talking about the Big Picture would have included that. Or maybe you had the stamina to keep listening and they did?

Anyway, my main point is simple: whereas you'll get commentators galore who are either frankly unionist or implicitly unionist, you'll search fairly hard before you'll get a committed republican or even nationalist commentator on the air. It's true, y'know. It's not just the Yuletide booze talking.

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

It's a question of respect

Well, that's breakfast done. Verging on abstemious to leave room for what is to follow. Here in Beckenham the rain has been PISSING down during the night - eased off a bit at the moment but dark and threatening. No matter: I have That Speech to look forward to. Needless to say there are  people lacking the respect that is required for proper reception of The Speech (see http://www.anphoblacht.com/contents/22587). How sad, that  seditious elements should fail to adopt a properly respectful posture for  The Woman that Ireland-  North, South, East and West - was so filled with delight to receive not so long ago. What a pity the Eire president could not find himself capable of delivering a similar speech to his subjects ...sorry, citizens.  Or maybe it's better not - he wouldn't suit a tiara.

That said, enough already. The day beckons. There is a light in the east. Enjoy.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

To coin a phrase: glory be to God for dappled things

I've just come from talking with a man who is 100% unionist and whose company, on the few occasions I meet him, I enjoy. And that set me thinking about something: when I was working on my book (yes, the one you should rush out and buy for Christmas - Whose Past Is It Anyway? - and if the shop hasn't got it, ask me and I'll sort it)...Where was I? Oh yes, brief commercial...But I was struck during those interviews by the frequency with which I found myself liking people whose political opinions are totally at odds with my own. I find no problem in separating the two  - the politics from the rest of the man/woman - but I'm beginning to wonder if there isn't  something wrong with me. Most people seem  happy to confer sainthood on those whose opinions they agree with and to consign to damnation those whose opinions they disagree with.  Does that make sense?

Not as I see it; but I suppose it's linked to affirmation. To that good feeling we get when someone tells us, either implicitly or explicitly, "Your political views are excellent - they agree with mine. You are an intelligent chap".  And when someone disagrees with us, it's easy to feel they're dismissing you along with your opinions.

Really, this shouldn't be. Political thinking is only part of our intellectual make-up. There are views on sex, religion, art, psychology,  plumbers -  the rest of human knowledge, in fact; and on these you may very well agree with your political opponent. Or maybe you like your  political opponent  simply because s/he is a cheerful and thoughtful conversationalist. There are so many elements go to make up the entire person, it strikes me as daft to dismiss someone because we see one part of them as being defective, or at least different from us. That's why I've always had a slight question-mark over that line from the Bible, where the heavenly choirs at Christmas sing of 'On earth, peace to men of goodwill'.  Leave aside the non-reference to women: shouldn't we be wishing peace to those we consider to be of ill-will as well? Or even especially? Note, I'm not  saying befriend them, but do leave yourself open to enjoying other aspects of their personality.

See? I'm doing my damnedest to move away from the instinctive ba-humbug that this time of year tends to provoke in me. So in case I miss tomorrow,  Nollaig shona duibh go leir -  Happy Christmas to all, especially to those who detest my political take on the world.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Two thoughts to ruin your Christmas

I know I should be cheerful with the time of year that's in it, but I came across two statements today that have plunged me into serious gloom. Move over, Scrooge.

The first was on the car radio, where I heard RTÉ give a free five-minute plug to the Irish Independent.  Apparently that organ is going to go 100% tabloidy as from tomorrow so they had the editor on to say how significant it was. Well, said the editor, people had told them they liked the tabloidy thing - apparently some of the Indo  is already in tabloid form  - so they responded. The public were happy with the tabloidy news because (and he repeated this at least twice) they looked for a paper, whether online or in hard copy, that was “trusted and authoritative”. Oh, and unbiased. The interviewer didn’t slap the table and tell the Indo editor  to get the hell outa here, he was such a joker. Nor did the phone lines to RTÉ, as far as I know, flood with calls from people saying in effect what Jeremy Paxman says he asks himself when confronted with a politician: why is this lying bastard lying to me? No - the interviewer played it straight. Accepted every word from the editor’s lips as gospel truth. That, I thought, is the south’s national broadcaster responding to the Indo. And then I thought of Miriam O’Callaghan and switched off the radio before I plunged in gloom so thick, I’d crash the car.

The other uncheerful statement I read online when I got home. It was an article in the News Letter,  headed “Ulster’s drivers urged to join in protest”. Apparently the guardians of the Union flag will be out in force at a place near you this evening at 6.00 pm, and they’ve urged “people that are stuck in traffic instead of sitting in your car get out and join in”. WTF? You expect people who can’t get home or to the shops or to wherever they’re going to abandon their cars and join in with the people who think that blocking roads and issuing death threats is being clever? God give me strength.  Adding insult to injury, the flegboys  say:

“We would encourage all members of the PUL (Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist) community taking part in Friday’s nationwide protest to do so in a peaceful and dignified manner to ensure that we can portray the right image of unionism/loyalism and gain support from the wider PUL community.”

Now there’s a statement that’s calculated to take us all forward to a reasonable, shared future. PUL the other one, guys.  The only consolation I can think of is that I’m not a unionist, which means I don’t have so much as a smidgen of responsibility for these head-bangers intent on chaos.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Please - don't befriend me. Just play straight.

OK, cards on the table. I like William Crawley. He’s smart, cheerful and maybe the best presenter in BBC Belfast. ‘Sunday Sequence’, the radio programme he presents, has become a must-listen for anybody interested in political as well as religious developments here and elsewhere. 

Right, that’s the nice stuff. Now the point on which I disagree with him. Yesterday on Twitter he said “We need to learn how to talk about one another without alienating the other. We can’t do that without befriending one another.”  I agree with him on the first bit, I fundamentally disagree with him on the second . He’s quite right that there’s not much point talking to someone if all you’re doing is getting up his/her nose. But the notion that we have to be friends with people in order to talk to them is plain wrong.

It’s also dangerous. During the Troubles there was a view touted, mainly but by no means only by the Churches, that what was called for was a conversion in each of our hearts. If we could all go through the day being nice to each other, the Troubles would be over. The gap in that reasoning is that we act towards each other partly through free will but to a considerable measure by the kind of society structures we live within.  In other words, politics matters.

The present flag dispute is a perfect example. Working-class unionists, or some of them, appear to believe their Britishness is being torn down, stripped from them. The facts contradict this, in terms of what flag flies on public buildings, what iconography and imagery adorn public buildings, what names streets have, what political view is exemplified 3,000 times over in marching form each year. Leave aside the brute fact of partition for a moment. The existence of the conditions described above are what need addressing, in an open, logical, fair-minded manner. Certainly if people involved are also friends, that’s fine. But I don't like everybody and I wouldn’t presume to expect that everyone likes me. I will insist, and so should everybody, that society is organised on a basis of fairness and justice, and if there are competing political viewpoints, that the cities and towns and society people live in reflect this. Forget the ‘befriending’ bit, William. Let’s just start building in a business-like, decent-minded way. Then friendship will flourish.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Park name insult debate

A: They have a nerve, don’t you think? But no feelings. Imagine naming a kiddies’ park after a well-known terrorist. 
B:  Who did?
A:  The terrorist called Raymond McCreesh. Somewhere around Newry they’ve gone and named a park after him. Probably in retaliation for the loyalist protests about tearing down the flag.
B: But I thought that park got McCreesh’s name in 2001 or something.
A: And?
B: And nobody objected at the time. Including Danny Kennedy, the deputy leader of the UUP.
A: Well, sometimes it takes time for an outrageous insult to sink in. 
B: I’m anti-monarchist myself.
A: What’s that got to do with anything?
B: Well it’s just that when I come into work I have to come over Queen’s Bridge and past the King’s Hall. During lunch-time I sometimes do a bit of shopping in Royal Avenue.
A: What are you suggesting? That the Royal Family are dead terrorists?
B: And then in Dublin there’s Pearse Street and Connolly Station and Heuston Station and Cathal Brugha Street.
A: And your point is?
B: Well, they’re dead terrorists too.
A: No they’re not. They are revered patriots.
B: How’dymean?
A:  They gave their lives for their country. After fighting against the British army.
B: And what’s the McCreesh story? I keep forgetting just what it was he did.
A: He fought against the British army in South Armagh and then he ga...Oh very clever, very droll. Ulster is different. No surrender. Not an inch.
B:  I see.
A: Long live Maggie Thatcher.
B: Right. Unlike the Belgrano.
A: What’d you say?
B: I said ‘Unlike the Belgrano’. You remember the Argentine light cruiser that was moving away from the conflict zone. Mrs Thatcher gave orders and it was sunk. Over three hundred men died.
A: Yes indeed, and if I  might echo her words: rejoice in that.
B: What - in the death of over 300 men?
A: Of course.  It was a war. They were trying to take our island. Just because it’s thousands of miles from Britain doesn’t mean it isn’t British. 
B: Pat Finucane.
A: I beg your pardon?
B: I said ‘Pat Finucane’.  Some people think Thatcher was ultimately responsible for his death. 
A: Why, that’s outrageous! Who ever heard of a prime minister giving an order that resulted in someone’s death?
B: Mmm. 
A: Mmm indeed. Perhaps we’ll talk again, when you learn some basic logic. You know, jaw-jaw is always better than war-war.
B: Mmm  (exits stage left, pursued by a bear wrapped in a Union flag)

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Tim Pat Coogan: the big man speaks out

[Below is a shortened version of my interview with Tim Pat Coogan in my book 'Whose Past Is It Anyway?' - the ideal Christmas present...You've bought it already? Now that's what I call clever.]

Tim Pat Coogan mentioned that he was working on a book about the Famine when I interviewed him. Since then,  the book has come out and he’s received all sorts of hostile responses for the title (The Famine Plot) and the content of his book. He’s even been refused a visa to the US. All of which will help, I hope, to generate even greater publicity and sales.

 He’s a big, warm, fluent man,  whose head is filled with Irish history, political and personal. 

“My father had an excellent, very strongly nationalist library. As quite a small boy I learned about figures in Irish history that you wouldn’t learn about in school, like Cahir O’Doherty and Galloping O’Hogan, and obviously the great O’Neill, Sarsfield, and figures like  Parnell. So I had a strong grasp of Irish history , from a nationalist perspective, I suppose, but I broadened that out. I was always interested in history and in writing; and living here on the east coast, you got BBC broadcasts and television when nobody else did. That was a kind of window on the world, seeing ministers being put on the spot in current affairs programmes and so on.”

He attended Blackrock Collge and his mentor there was the history teacher, Fr Carroll. The priest rang up Vivian de Valera of the Irish Press and said that he “had a boy who would either turn out a genius or break his heart. I regretfully never managed either”. But the phone-call did get him a toe-hold in journalism, in which he worked for nearly thirty-five years. 

He sees the Covenant and the Larne gun-running as all “part of a seamless garment” with Easter 1916.  “ But I don’t know whether I would use the word ‘celebrate’ for any of the three centenaries; I would use the word ‘commemorate’.”  He laments the absence of such distinctions in Irish life.

“People take a very simplistic, today’s-headline-or-soundbite view of history. When Martin McGuinness decided to go into southern politics at the time of the presidential election, the seagulls rose up in the media and there was tremendous denunciation, as if this were something extraordinarily foreign to Irish politics. Every single party  on the island entered the democratic arena or the parliament with a gun in its pocket or else at home in the store. And that included the unionists, the Labour party, and of course the various strands of the Irish Party. Both Fine Gael and de Valera and his people came into the Dail with guns”.

On the subject of the signing of the Ulster Covenant, he speaks of Lloyd George’s surprise after meeting Sir James Craig, that what he’d thought of as a nine-county Ulster was going to be, for Craig, a six-county Ulster. 

“So they made it a state where they would be safe by using the laws to discriminate and gerrymander constituencies against the Catholics. It was intended that they would have an upper chamber, which would give the Papishes some sort of say in the north, and they would have PR, but they knocked both those things out because they had this siege mentality, a citadel mentality”.

Things have changed, he believes. 

“I mean, the admission by Trimble that the six counties had been a cold house for nationalists seems to indicate that the next logical step over the coming years would be to make the house warm, to have some sort of a welcome sign somewhere in the house - a fáilte.  I imagine it would only be neighbourly and dignified modern political behaviour for the unionist organisers of the Covenant commemoration to invite southern visitors, certainly to invite the MLAs of the Sinn Féin party to it, and that all parties would comport themselves with dignity. “

And he thinks those organising the Easter Rising commemorations have a similar obligation. 

“I most definitely think unionists should be invited to the Easter 1916 commemorations. I very often find it difficult to invade the mind of a nationalist politician, or those of the Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil stripe, so to take over the interior working of Mr Poots’s ..I suppose I can call it intellectual activity - I find that rather unfathomable. But the political situation is evolving so fast. We’re in Europe now. And the six counties may think they’re extraneous to all the crises in the euro and southern Ireland; they’re not. They can go down the tubes even further and faster than the south can.”

As to the commemoration of the Battle of the Somme, he looks to young people.

“They don’t see an abrogation of unity in acknowledging that so many  Irishmen fell in that battle. I think there is a valid intellectual argument that they were misled and that they fell in an imperial war while they thought they were defending plucky little Belgium or that in some way it was going to help the Irish Home Rule movement. I think you should recognise there were brave people on both sides and that according to their lights, they were doing the right thing”.

He’s very struck by the changes in northern nationalism during his lifetime.

“In my younger days going up to the north, there wouldn’t be the slightest possibility of seeing young nationalists, Catholics, on the road with hurling stick or going to a football match with obvious GAA gear. They’d be rousted by the RUC; they’d be lucky to escape a kicking. And now what do you find? You find that the PSNI have joined in football matches with them.”

He believes the Ulster Covenant signing came out of a state of fear among unionist people. 

“Now that fear has demonstrably lessened. The recognition by the south of the north, everything that’s enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement, tells you that there shouldn’t be problems with centenaries. As to the 1916 commemorations, I can’t see modern Sinn Féin being triumphalist. I certainly can’t see the Dublin Government being allowed to by the electorate. But the manifestation of your own identity is not to deny somebody else their identity. And there is a Green tide. The fact is that there are hundreds and thousands of people between Croke Park and Casement Park, and six counties teams have been winning All-Irelands. I mean look at Tyrone, Derry, Armagh - all those places. There is a message in it. And the message is, as Parnell said many, many years ago: no man can set a barrier to the onward march of a nation”. 

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Five questions after Connecticut shootings

1. President Obama's speech in the aftermath of the Connecticut killings was indeed impressive, particularly when he spoke of the children whose lives had been brutally snuffed out. Twenty lives ended before they'd properly begun - who wouldn't feel like weeping. Q: Did the president weep also for the 168 children killed in Pakistan since 2004 by drone bombs? Not to mention the civilians killed - somewhere between two and three thousand?

2. Every day in the US,  thirty-four more people die in shooting incidents. If all human lives are equally valuable - and they are - then the president should have been weeping on a daily basis, especially as he has done nothing in the past four years to curb the gun lobby in the US. Is 26 people killed on the one spot by one person worse than 34 people killed by different people in a variety of areas?

3. At the last poll on the subject, only 25% of respondents in the US favoured a tightening of gun laws.  This despite Columbine,  Virginia Tech, Aurora and other appalling events.  How and why is it that Americans appear not to get it? And are they likely to get it, now 20 small children have been slaughtered?

4.  Shootings and killings are a central part of thousands of Hollywood movies. I was reared myself on a diet of Audie Murphy, Gary Cooper and Gene Autry. And how we all love just love Clint Eastwood when he says "I know what you're thinking. 'Did he fire six shots or only five?' Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun inthe world, and would blow your head clean off, you've got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?"  My question: is this cinema diet really good for us?

5. There are  153,450 legally-held weapons in Northern Ireland. The youngest owner is 17, the oldest 103. Eight people own between 150 and 175 weapons each.  Nearly 3,000 are held as 'personal protection weapons' by, among others,  ex-PSNI and prison officers. So you've got to ask yourself one question: does a divided society need all those weapons in private hands? OK - make it two questions: are these weapons evenly distributed among unionists and nationalists. Because an imbalance would surely be alarming for the side without killing instruments.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Change comes dropping slow.Oh so slow.

One minute you’re up, next you’re down. Peter Robinson was just hitting that expansive unionism-is-safe-with-us-and-Catholics-are-lining-up-at-our-door note when boom!  Mein gott, donner und blitzen!  What kind of democracy is this, that votes to not have a 365-day flag at City Hall?  This is a crisis, a political tsunami!…Except. Don’t the Chinese have the same word for crisis as for opportunity?  So let’s send out 40,000 flyers and blame the whole thing on Naomi Long!  Perfect. We impress on the Shinners and their fellow-travellers that we’re not going to have Our Flag tampered with and  we fatally undermine your woman Long's Westminster seat! Great stuff. Get cracking, lads.

So the lads got cracking,  the back of City Hall became a bear-pit of sectarianism and mob rule, and a wee woman stuck her face up to a broken window and made  herself part of a hilarious video that has gone round the world. There will be a cost, of course, and not just for a damaged gate and a broken window.  Foreign firms will turn decidedly frosty at the notion they might want to invest in a place with such obvious nutters in it 

Oh dear. How can someone as shrewd as Robinson hatch a plan with  such self-destruct potential? If he’d thought the thing through he’d have known that as soon as you say ‘Demo - back gate of City Hall,’ the rest of the script is already written. Remember when they came baying for Niall O Donnaighle’s blood? Remember the protests against the Anglo-Irish Agreement, with the late George Seawright trying to scramble up the side of the back gate and the air thick with curses and missiles? Peter has lived through all that and yet he didn’t see this coming. Or maybe he thought there'd be a wee bit of violence, which'd put the frighteners on the Shinners and the Stoops and that bloody woman Long's party.

Certainly limited vision seems to afflict a lot of our unionist fellow-countrymen. Like, hasn’t even one of them noticed how irrevocably, totally and absolutely drenched in Britishness the Belfast City Hall is?  And yet it’s loyalists ( a  loyalist, Virginia, is a unionist with a Rangers scarf round his mouth) who spent the past week burning cars and pelting the police because their identity wasn’t being given clear enough expression.. Maybe go to Specsavers, lads? You get to hoist your flag over City Hall 15 or is it 17 times a year. Nationalists, who are probably now a majority in Belfast, get to hoist their flag over City Hall...um... no times. Never. Never never never. Inside City Hall there are stained glass windows to King William III,  Queen Victoria, the UDR, the RUC,  a bust of Carson, your woman Victoria out front again, all 11 feet of her. And in the city itself - clocks, hospitals, bridges, buildings, hospitals,  all bear the royal name. Belfast is knee-deep in royal and imperial memorials. So remind me again: whose identity is getting a hard time here?

Most shameful of all is that disorder arose because  nationalists and republicans engaged in a democratic act of decision-making.  Remember when unionists used to lecture republicans about following the democratic political path?  Last week they did just that, as they voted in Belfast City Hall. Their reward? See above re burning cars, missiles at cops, demented screeches of ‘No surrender!'  A police officer in her car has a petrol bomb thrown inside it. Peter says ‘suspend’ rather than ‘stop’, because ‘stop’ would make him a tyrant.  And the census figures now suggest that in ten years' time, taigs will be in a majority in the state. That is, if they don't join the DUP, which Peter is confident a lot will want to do. Or should that be 'was confident'? 

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Are you Northern Irish?

Are you Northern Irish? Well if you come from the north of Ireland, it seems a reasonable claim to make. But the way the demographists have been going on since the latest release of census figures, you’d be pardoned for assuming it meant someone who votes unionist. 

Why all the excitement over what people call themselves? Because it might be the log onto which unionism can attach itself, as the waters whirl and tumble around it, threatening drowning. 

The demographic trend is unmistakeable: the gap between Protestant and Catholic numbers in our little statelet is shrinking at pace. If what happened over the past ten years were to happen again in the next ten years, Catholics here would constitute 46% of the population, Protestants 43%. And were a border poll then called, as it almost certainly would be, the state of Northern Ireland would cease to exist - assuming Catholics voted for a re-united Ireland. Yes, Virginia, I said “assuming”.

The argument that says they would is that they consistently vote for the SDLP and Sinn Féin - both united-Ireland parties. And that’s where the Northern Irish thing comes in. Demographists, Peter Robinson and others claim that Catholics in the north no longer want a united Ireland - that with their fellow-countrymen in the north, they’re forging a new identity which is neither British nor Irish. So growth in Catholic numbers represents no threat.

On the other hand, why call yourself ‘Northern Irish’  if you don’t think you’re Irish as well? Search me. People say funny things when they’re questioned on nationality. I remember in my former life scrutinising applications for a diploma course at the University of Ulster and being struck by the consistency with which some applicants from Catholic schools described themselves as ‘British’. At first I was quite excited, assuming this would mark a surge in the number of Catholics voting unionist. But the years past and the opposite happened - the number of Catholics voting republican increased. I would guess that the applicants assumed the person scrutinising their application would be unionist-inclined, and by declaring yourself British you gave yourself a slight edge, or at least no handicap. In short, they used a British label because in these circumstances they thought it might be to their advantage. In the privacy and anonymity of the polling booth, things were different. 

There’s also the fact that people often define themselves in terms of what they’re not as much as what they are. It may be that the Northern Irish in the census returns were declaring their difference from the brown-envelope culture of the south of Ireland. Which again would be different from voting pro-union, either in elections or in referendums. 

The truth is, we’ll never know - except, that is, a border poll is called. Then we could all give our views and get on with things, the constitutional question either answered or set aside for another seven years. Odd that there isn’t more clamour for that. But that’s Northern Irish/Irish from the north for you. 

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

A tale of two men under threat

I’ve just listened to two men talking on the radio. One was on BBC Radio Ulster/Raidio Uladh - Jeffrey Donaldson-  and he was talking about the death-threat that he and his family, he says, have received, probably from dissident republicans. If they don’t leave the north of Ireland, the threat says, they will be killed. He says he’s upset about it because naturally he’s concerned for his family.

The other man, interviewed on BBC Radio 4 -  was one of Pat Finucane’s sons - John I think. He was talking about the report to be released today, not about a death-threat to his father but about his father’s murder in front of his wife and children. As you almost certainly know, Pat Finucane was a young lawyer here who was killed by the UDA with acknowledged collusion by British forces. The Finucanes say they will read the report but have little hope for it, since it didn’t involve them and gave no opportunity to interrogate witnesses. As for the British prime minister’s apology, they say he’s got it back to front. First you make clear what events you’re apologizing for, then you apologize. They want a public enquiry.

One obvious difference between the two interviewed men is that while one has received a death threat, the other has been the victim of an executed death-threat ( Pat Finucane was told by prisoners he represented that RUC men had threatened to kill the lawyer). Another difference is that one - Jeffrey Donaldson - is under death-threat from an illegal paramilitary organisation.  Pat Finucane was killed with the willing assistance of state forces - the people whose duty it is to protect citizens. The third difference is that Jeffrey Donaldson appears to be at best ambiguous and at worst rejectionist of a democratic decision arrived at by Belfast City Council. Pat Finucane worked within the law, argued the law on behalf of his clients, accepted the British legal and judicial system here. For that he lost his life. And that’s a big difference. 

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Let's count some sectarian heads, shall we?

Well, it’s nice to have something to smile at for a change. All the people who go ‘Tut-tut!’, shake their heads and mutter about the neanderthal thinking of those who go in for sectarian head-counts are now...um, well, busy licking their little pencils and doing a sectarian head-count of the freshly-released census figures. 

OK.  What’s the core point that jumps out? Right - Protestant population down by 5% to 48%, Catholic population up by 1%  to 45%. Replicate that trend next census in 2021 and you’ll have a 43% Protestant population and a 46% Catholic population. Eeeeeeek.

But hold. While 45% of population here are Catholics, only 25% describe themselves as Irish only. Double eeeeek. So Peter Robinson was right all along. Loads and loads of Catholics are really happy as they are and only need a friendly invitation to join the DUP.

Right. That’s the Democratic Unionist Party, which was the Protestant Unionist Party until 1971, when its leader Ian Paisley figured that ‘Democratic’ sounded nicer than ‘Protestant’ in the title. That’s the same Ian Paisley, of course, who believes that Catholics are on the high road to eternal damnation and are being led there by the Pope who is of course the Anti-Christ. 

Mmm. Maybe better not to assume that all those union-loving Catholics will put their tick beside the DUP name in an election. You say they’ll vote for the UUP instead? Pu-lease. The UUP is busy fracturing itself at a rate of knots without tossing the taig-issue into their particular mess. Anyone giving me good odds on Basil McCrea and John McAllister being in the UUP in a year’s time? So that leaves Alliance. Mmm. No, I’m afraid the union-loving Catholics will all have to get together and invent their own union-loving party. ULP has a nice sound for a new party. Like swallowing something you can’t digest.

But of course not joining a unionist party doesn’t mean you wouldn’t vote to stay in the union with Britain, come a referendum.  I imagine quite a few Catholics who see the southern economy sinking even faster than the one north of the border are not going to take any political step that might mean the drowning southern economy pulls them down with it. And then there are those northern Catholics who plain don’t like southerners. So yes, there are a fair number of Catholics who would probably vote to stay in the union with Britain. 

The question is, how many? As the Catholic population continues to grow, and the Protestant population continues to sink, who knows? The south’s economy may revive. The north’s economy may accelerate its descent. Iris Robinson may re-run for Westminster. Events, dear boy, events. There’s no telling. Like, even as I write, I see William Hill has shortened its odds on Britain losing its triple-A rating by next June - was 5/4, now is 4/7.  Talk about eeeeek.

In all this wild swirl of events and figures, one thing is clear: this is Peter Robinson’s moment. He must join with Gerry Adams and call a border referendum quickly, while the Catholic population, or a sizeable part of it, is committed to the Union. 

And if he doesn’t? Well, then he’ll clearly believe a census form is one thing but a polling booth is another.  And on that, if nothing else, I agree with Peter.

Monday, 10 December 2012

From spoof call to utter futility

There’s futility and then there’s utter futility. When I first heard of that spoof call from Australia, impersonating Her Majesty (God bless her) and enquiring after her daughter-in-law, I said “I wouldn’t like to be the nurse that fell for that one!”.  What I had in mind, of course, was that the unfortunate nurse or whoever had let the call through, which had made a laughing-stock of things royal, would get such a blast from her superiors, it’d singe her hair. Alas, it ended with something far, far worse: the death of the unfortunate nurse.

So now - who’s to blame?  Is it the pair in Australia, who carried out the prank?  I would reply with a very firm No. Anyone I spoke to in the immediate aftermath said it was a right laugh, down to the sound of barking Corgis in the background. Now, however, lots of people are getting very moral about the spoof-makers. They’ve been taken off-air, there’s talk of banning all prank calls, they’re the villains. 

I don’t believe that for a moment. I don’t know, of course, but I don’t think it’s wildly inaccurate to speculate   that those higher up the food chain from that poor, poor nurse gave her the mother and father of all bawlings-out, and that this directly related to the terrible and terminal step she took afterwards. The alternative is to believe that the nurse felt so badly about in some way having failed to shield the royal personage, the bearer within her of the next-but-one-or-is-it-two destined to sit on the royal throne, that she felt suicide was the only way out. 

Dear God, I hope not. That would indeed have been an utterly wasteful and futile gesture - to give your life because in some vague way you’d embarrassed a pampered woman getting ready to produce another leech on the public purse. 

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Och sure, it's only 100 masked men

I read a tweet yesterday. “Just passed around 100 masked men heading towards city centre”.  The city centre in question was, of course, Belfast. Imagine if the tweet had referred to Dublin or Cork or Liverpool or Manchester - do you think there wouldn’t have been uproar?  If policemen had been hospitalized, if politicians had been behind the appearance of such people on the streets, if  the gate leading into the city hall had been damaged,  if death-threats had been issued against a city councillor and an MP  - would it not have been top story in every radio and TV report, the main headline in every paper? You betcha. But because it’s here,  the British and Irish media give it space, but not really very much. The response, presumably, is “Oh, those crazy Irish, at it again!”.

 I heard Danny Morrison and Alex Kane on radio today, discussing the civil disorder and why it had occurred. Alex at one point said words to the effect “I’ll be meeting people from my community after this broadcast and they’ll say ‘Oh, I heard you getting very pally with that Morrison on the wireless!  And no doubt you’ll get the same - ‘Oh I heard you getting very pally with that Kane’ ”.  Danny Morrison corrected him and said that he, Morrison, would actually get no such reaction. In short,  any attempt to make it one-lot’s-as-bad-as-the-other is bogus.

Take the facts of the matter: the City Council debates an issue,  then votes. They conclude by arriving at a half-way house: some flying of the Union flag some of the time, but no flying of the Union flag all the time. Sounds reasonable. Although  if you were really into tit-for-tat, you’d maybe want to balance the fifteen days that the Union flag will fly at City Hall (15) against the number of days the tricolour will fly at City Hall (0). - but that was never even considered. Even though the flag given allegiance by nationalists and republicans doesn’t enter the debate, even though Belfast City Hall continues stuffed with royalty and British reminders, even though the decision was a perfect example of local democracy in action,  you’ll still hear straight-faced commentators blaming the City Council for having raised the issue.  In this way the people who adhered to the democratic process are condemned, leaving the car-burning mobs of masked men as, well, a response to provocation. 

Where have i heard that before? Ah yes - the Troubles. The IRA started the Troubles, loyalist paramilitarism was simply a response to that. Despite the fact that the first innocent civilians were killed by Gusty Spence and his gang, the first policeman to die was killed during loyalist rioting. 

A favourite claim of some unionist politicians  to words of republican politicians is to talk of ‘the mask slipping‘. So what would you say about those who send out thousands of leaflets calling for protest, naming an individual politician who isn’t even a city councillor, and then go into hand-wringing mode when the called-out demonstrators start to issue death-threats and wreak havoc?

You can try to cook this one whatever way you like, but the unavoidable truth come through: the mask of some unionist politicians has dropped  and what is revealed is not a pretty picture.  

Friday, 7 December 2012

Gentleman Jim speaks out

I’m surprised by the number of people who’ve asked me, after my interview with him, “What’s Jim Allister like?”  Want the truth? OK. I found Jim Allister courteous, witty and the kind of guy you might like to, if not to have a beer with, at least a glass of good wine. Not that there were any signs of wine or strong liquor of any kind when I interviewed him in his office at Stormont.

His parents came from County Monaghan  - one of the three Ulster counties left behind, so to say, when Ireland was partitioned.  That and the fact that both parents were “quite robust and strong” in their unionism probably, he says, played a part in shaping his own political views. Have those views changed over time? Well, he tells me, his enthusiasm for devolution has waned in no uncertain manner, due to the kind of devolution he sees here in the North. 

When we talk about the signing of the Ulster Covenant, he brings it quickly round to the present day. And he’s more than critical of his fellow-unionists.

“They have settled for incredible propositions. We’re supposed to be an integral part of the United Kingdom but we’re not allowed to change our government, we’re not allowed to have an opposition. In fact we must have in government those whose organisations set about murdering and butchering us. As of right! These seem to me light years away from the principles that underscored the Ulster Covenant. I think if you were to say to anyone who signed the Ulster Covenant in 1912 that, a hundred years hence, manifestation of those whose politics you fear will be effectively ruling over you, as of right, and you will not be allowed to have an opposition against them, and you’ll not be allowed to put them out of government or change your government - they would say ‘That’s not what we’re signing the Ulster Covenant for, it’s the very antithesis of what we’re signing the Ulster Covenant for’ ”. 
He had a great-uncle -  his father’s uncle - who died at the Somme, so he believes tribute should be paid to his sacrifice and that of so many more.

“I wouldn’t want to see the Battle of the Somme or any other anniversary hijacked for the politics of the day. We’ve seen that so much, in the selling of the Belfast Agreement, from Bono and John Hume and all the rest in the Waterfront Hall, and every bandwagon being used to sell the latest political message. I don’t want to see a solemn occasion like remembering the Battle of the Somme being turned into a political circus. If the people in the Republic feel enthused to celebrate and mark those who donned the British uniform, then that’s a welcome thing. But my fear is, if you start massaging commemorations for political purposes, then they lose their real purpose. Joint celebration? There’ll be celebrations open to everyone. Just as joining the British Army was open to everyone, and thankfully many of both persuasions did join it. So I don’t think you have to go about and create some sort of artificial ambience for all of this. Either there is something there worth celebrating or there isn’t.”
I’ve saved the tricky one of the three centenaries  - the Easter Rising - for last. How does he see a commemoration of Easter 1916 panning out.

“I have no doubt that already, from the Sinn Féin direction, just as they turn the Hunger Strike commemorations into big political events for their own political advantage, that there will be every attempt on their part to celebrate those whey would see, in their terms, as their forefathers in the rebellion they have engaged in. To an extent they are entitled to do that as they wish. But likewise don’t let them patronise me or ram it down my throat - or rewrite history or recreate them as some sort of heroes.  In my book they were rebels taking the opportunity, as the IRA often did, of Britain’s extremity, to pursue a course of rebellion.  And I don’t want it sanitised and changed beyond the truth of what it was. They’re not going to persuade me that those who took over the GPO did the right thing and that they were anything other than how I’ve described them. If they killed in pursuit of their aim then yes, of course they were murderers, because they weren’t regular troops, acting under the protection of a state of war.”
He concedes that centenary commemorations could increase division between people here but he believes certain occasions demand a response. 

“I think a nation who forgets its history loses its soul.I mean, what is it that makes any nation what they are? It’s the War of Independence and the Civil War, among other things. Now no one suggests to an American that in the interests of the overall collegiate good we should forget about all that, we shouldn’t celebrate any of that or mark any of that.  Likewise no one should suggest to me as a unionist that iconic historic events should not be marked in the way that they deserve, in deference to some nebulous thing which is called progress”.

You could call Jim Allister a thorn in the DUP’s side, a throw-back, a fundamentalist. One thing you couldn’t call him is mealy-mouthed. With Jim Allister, what you see is what you get.  You may not like it but as he sees it, that’s your problem, not his.

[ In case someone hasn't already twigged: this is an edited version of my interview with Jim Allister in my book 'Whose Past Is It Anyway?'  Contact me if your bad local book shop hasn't stocked it and I'll sort you...]

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Checking the mirror

I was in Omagh last night, talking to an audience that included a selection of History students and their teacher from the local integrated college. We were talking under the general heading of my book title Whose Past Is It Anyway?. Even as we discussed, back on both sides of Belfast Lough, in Carrickfergus and in Bangor,  loyalists/unionists were taking a leap back into the past - they were busy attacking the Alliance Party centre and issuing death threats to its members. Why? Because  Belfast Alliance councillors had dared to vote - in a completely peaceful, democratic way - for the Union flag to fly over Belfast City Hall on a number of designated days, rather than for 365 days each year. In short, loyalists/unionists had used violence to attack democracy.

In Omagh, our discussion ranged widely. There was quite some time spent looking at  the distinction between ‘celebrating’ a centenary and ‘commemorating’ a centenary, with a general feeling that ‘commemorating’  suggested a more thoughtful attitude to the past, seeing what we could learn from it and what no longer made sense. I quoted from Bernadette McAliskey in the book as exemplifying this take on the past:

“The dead are dead - they have no stake in it, they’re not here. They can inform - the past can inform and guide us in our thinking in the present - but we can’t make choices in the present because somebody died at the Somme or because somebody died in the Easter Rising or because somebody signed the Covenant in his blood”.

It was a lively and informative evening. Perhaps the most interesting moment was when a man who was clearly a committed unionist (“When I hear you come on the radio, I do everything short of throwing it out the window”`) made his contribution.  He declared that he was celebrating the signing of the Covenant, not simply commemorating it. When it was suggested that it might be helpful to sit down, either with fellow-unionists or better still with natioanalists/republicans, and discuss the different perspectives on the same event and what lessons might be learnt for the future, he was firm. Not interested.  Not an inch. End of story.

Maybe it was because he felt outnumbered - there were probably more nationalists/republicans in the audience than unionist - or maybe it was for other reasons. But I remembered the words of Danny Morrison, another of my interviewees from the book. He spoke of the need to “get unionists to relax”. Only when that happens, when they don’t feel threatened, can worthwhile progress be made. The not-interested man in the Omagh audience brought that home forcefully to me. I suppose like other nationalists/republicans, it’s something I tend too often to forget. 

On the other hand, I look at an opinion piece in yesterday's  Guardian by Gareth Mulvenna, which is talking about the violence at Belfast City Hall on Monday night. It concludes

 "Surely parties such as Sinn Fein and the SDLP would not direct such aggressive politics on to the very fringes of society, given that they continually preach about social, economic and political rights? If community relations have been damaged on this occasion, Sinn Fein, the SDLP and Alliance need only look in their respective mirrors."    

Mmm. If Mr Mulvenna were to look in the mirror, he might see my not-an-inch audience member from last night.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Invest NI CEO's pay-hike? FFS!

I’m sitting here listening to a debate the Nolan programme and it’s about the hefty pay-hike the CEO of Invest NI is getting. It’s around £30,000.  Jim Allister is arguing that this is too much, a brace of economic big-shots are arguing that it’s a hike well-deserved.

FFS!  Let’s try some facts about CEO pay, on this side of the Atlantic and the other side.

  1. The argument that if you don’t pay CEOs chunky money they’ll leave is bogus. The University of Delaware has produced a study which shows that CEOs don’t move very often but when they do, they’re flops.
  2. The bigger the gap between CEO pay and average worker pay, the lower the company’s morale, productivity and turnover. Studies by among others Northeastern University Business School and Bentley University show productivity decreasing as the CEO-average worker’s pay gap increases.
  3. Is there any measure of parity between the top and the bottom? The University of California shows that in 2010 the top 1 per cent captured 93 per cent of the growth in income. 
  4. But hasn’t it always been like this? Yes, but not nearly as glaringly. In 1998, the average CEO earned 47 times that of the average worker. By 2010 the figure was 120 times.
  5. Some years ago, Sir Martin Sorrell, the WPP advertising boss, made an ass of himself when he claimed that, given the job, his £1 milliona year basic pay was “very low”. His total package was actually £4.2 million. 
  6. While the good times lasted, the former bosses of Cable & Wireless and Thomas Cook took more than £15 million each from their companies. Then the shares crashed and Thomas Cook almost went bust. Neither man is handing any money back. 
  7. ‘Performance-related pay’ is a sham.  What it means is that the CEO avoids paying taxes on the money.  Last year this cost the US tax-payer $9.7 billion.  With the same money, salaries could have been provided for over 140,000 elementary school teachers or healthcare for nearly 5 million low-income children.
  8. In 1998 Britain, the average CEO earned 47 times the average worker. By 2010 the figure was 120 times. And if you think that’s bad, in 1980  the US's top CEOs got 42 times as much as the average worker. Today the figure is well over 300 times that of the average worker.

Tell you a secret? I don’t blame the CEOs for taking home truckloads of money. The system allows it. Why ain’t the system fixed, then? Because politicians (cf David Cameron’s cabinet) are part of the system as it is and benefit by it. 

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

About last night ( what, AGAIN?)

There are a lot of arguments advanced by those who think the Union flag should fly over Belfast City Hall 365 days a year ( +1 on a leap year). Their most obvious argument last night was to yell foul-mouthed abuse,  smash cars and attack police officers and security staff. Those unionists (i.e. the Alliance Party) who think 365 days is a bit over-the-top chose the selected-days option, and so it was decided. Latest word is that the Union flag will fly instead fly 365 days a year over the cenotaph beside City Hall.  This of course will help the city centre become a 'shared space'. And your granny was a jockey in last year's Grand National.

Unionists are violent/angry because, they say, the symbols of their Britishness are being cabined, cribbed, confined by republicans/nationalists. Oh really?  Put your hand in mine and let's take a walk through City Hall.

In the grounds in front of the Hall we see, among other things, an 11-foot-high statue of Queen Victoria and a memorial to Sir Edward J Harland MP (designed by Sir Alfred Brumwell Thomas and unveiled by Field Marshall Viscount Allenby). There’s more but it’s chilly. Let’s go inside.  

Now. Here we have a bronze statue to the Earl of Belfast, Frederick Richard Chichester, and this  mural commissioned to mark the Festival of Britain in 1951.  These are portraits of  King Edward VII, the Earl of Shaftesbury and Sir Edward Harland. Over there are stained glass windows showing the Royal Coat of Arms and those of the Chichester family. Here’s a special case displaying the Royal Charter granted to Belfast in 1613 and the 1888 Charter from Queen Victoria. And as we walk into the Banqueting Hall, you will note a series of stained glass windows showing  the Royal Arms and those of Lord Donegall and Lord Shaftesbury.  And you’ve probably noticed the stained glass windows showing King William III, Queen Victoria and King Edward VI.

Got the picture yet? Belfast City Hall, in the overwhelming number of its signs and symbols, is a warm-as-toast  house for those who subscribe to the union with Britain;  for non-subscribers, alas, it’s some degrees below cool.  And that, mind you,  without reference to a fluttering/non-fluttering Union flag above the building. 

Given that we’ve moved into an era where general lip-service is given to notions of parity,  an interesting question arises: what should be done about the historical decor of places like Belfast City Hall?  How might we make Belfast City centre a genuine shared space, with no signs/ symbols associated with one community crowding out those of another?

Well, you could do what was done with Nelson’s pillar in Dublin: set explosives, blow up what is out of place. When that happened in 1966, a considerable number of those living in Dublin and further afield were upset. They dismissed this direct-action approach as caveman, primitive.  It’s a reasonable argument, even though  I’ve never heard anyone within or beyond the Pale complain that in the 1920s  Great Brunswick Street in Dublin became Pearse Street, Great Britain Street became Parnell Street and Sackville Street became O’Connell Street. What’s more, did anyone of the pillar-lovers ring in and complain when the statue of Sadaam Hussein was pulled down following the American invasion of Iraq?  So it seems it’s  not always barbaric to remove the signs of a former regime when a new one comes into its own. 

I’m not for a moment saying all the British royalty and aristocracy artefacts listed above should be removed. I’ll not even argue that a balancing number of stained glass windows and statues should be constructed in honour of famous Irish leaders, or that street names be changed to reflect changed times. 

What I am saying is that those today wringing their hands and rending their garments because their Union flag will no longer flutter over City Hall every day that God sends, and who feel that Monday night stripped them of their British identity   -  those people really should take the City Hall tour.  That or  go to Specsavers. 

Monday, 3 December 2012

Tim Pat and 'Comrade' Kennedy

Maybe you caught it yourself. I missed the first half of the Sunday Sequence debate,  so I went into the Radio Ulster/Raidio Uladh site and listened to it all. It was like watching a couple of duellists, with a sword in one hand and a rapier in the other. I’ m referring, of course, to the debate on the Famine between Tim Pat Coogan and Professor Liam Kennedy from Queen’s University. 

The point of difference was clear:  Kennedy figured Coogan had written a book (The Famine Plot) which was narrow in its “evidential sources”, a book that was “out-dated and out-moded” and in which it was “terribly difficult to find any redeeming feature”.  The rest of us, gentle souls that we are, would have fallen to the floor, skewered for keeps in the face of such an authoritative attack. Not Tim Pat.  He cited AJP Taylor  ( a historian, he suggested, who might carry a bit more authority than Kennedy) who said that the Famine made Ireland  a kind of Belsen. The British welcomed the Famine, and led by the London Times,   looked forward to the day when “the Celt will be as rare on the banks of the Shannon” as the Red Indian in the US.  

Kennedy said this was misrepresenting the British, that it was in fact history as demonisation. He claimed that the British administrator Trevelyan acted “according to his own lights, trying to save as many Irish from starvation as possible”.  “I’m not defending the policies at the time” Kennedy concluded, which seemed a strange thing to say, since he’d been doing that with some energy for several minutes. 

Tim Pat’s book, it seems, centres on the question of whether the Famine was an act of genocide. He argues that according to the UN Protocol on genocide, the Irish Famine “ticks all the boxes”.  The English saw the Famine coming and did nothing. When it arrived they didn’t close the ports - grain was being exported as people died on the roadside. Yes, the government established soup kitchesn - but one year later cancelled them. He also noted, significantly, that the Famine commemoration committee, set up by the Irish government and of which he was a member, were not able to hold a meeting north of the border, such was the animosity displayed by some there.  

Who’s right? Well, maybe if you read Coogan’s book you can decide for yourself. Alternatively, you might like to read something on the subject by the man that Tim Pat referred to as ‘Comrade Kennedy’. That baffled me for a bit, until then I wondered if this  could be the Kennedy who ran with spectacular lack of success for the Conservative Party in North Down a few years back? Or maybe that was another of the Kennedys.

One thing’s for sure. The revisionist historians, exemplified by Kennedy, will find it harder to maintain the terrible-tragedy-nobody-could-have-averted line as more writers and historians like Coogan enter the field. 

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Niall O'Dowd and the view from America

This is an edited version of the Niall O'Dowd interview in my book Whose Past Is It Anyway?

I meet Niall O’Dowd in a Dublin hotel during one of his frequent trips to Ireland. He was a central figure in the lead-up to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and showed everyone how important the Irish diaspora is in creating a new Ireland. 

He now lives in the US but grew up in Co Louth in a family of mixed political allegiances. His father was “an unreconstructed de Valera-ite”, his brother is a Fine Gael TD, another brother was Mayor of Drogheda, one sister is active in Fine Gael,  another sister active in Fianna Fail.  His own political thinking has evolved over time.

“When I was young I was very much of the opinion that de Valera was right about the Civil War. Now as I get older and get more experience and less certain of myself, I can see Michael Collins’s point of view: take what you can at this point and then build on the rest of it.”

When I mention a notion popular among unionists and some nationalists - that Irish-American understanding of the situation here is romantic and clueless  - he gives it short shrift.

“I think we understand it better than people here. I think our history is a radical history. We funded the Fenian uprising, we funded the 1916 Rising. Our view all along was that the fundamentals, that partition was wrong and needed to be addressed. We succeeded in getting President Clinton and George Mitchell involved. I think everybody involved, unionists and everyone else would agree, instead of admiring the problem, Americans attacked it, which is what they do, and I think without them there wouldn’t have been a peace process”.

On the subject of the signing of the Covenant, he pulls no punches either.

“What the signing of the Covenant always spoke to me of was the hypocrisy of unionism, by saying that nationalists had to abide by political means, when 1912 was the very antithesis of that. It was the declaration of war against the Home Rule Bill and it was a declaration of war by unionism. It was followed up by the Curragh Mutiny, which was followed up by what occurred after the 1916 Rising. So from that point of view it’s a very important moment in Irish history. It’s not one that I think unionism should be particularly proud of, because it’s a notion that democracy or the rule of law was secondary to their own beliefs. They literally took up arms right after the signing of the Covenant, and the fact that they took up arms led, in many ways, to the Easter Rising”

And he sees the Rising as the cornerstone of the Irish state, with all that that implies.

“I see the 1916 Proclamation as the foundation document. It’s hugely important in terms of Irish identity, not just in Ireland but world-wide. I think it was the fire that lit the inspiration for millions of Irish-Americans, Irish-Australians, Irish-Canadians, that they suddenly realised that the Irish were going to step forward and take their place among the nations of the world. I would commemorate it the same way I would commemorate the American Declaration of Independence in America. It’s a foundation document that gets more and more important as the years go on, and I think the hundredth anniversary is a huge event for nationalists to celebrate. I have always looked on the men of 1916 as heroic figures and I will continue to do so. Anyone who looks on them otherwise is misunderstanding the bravery and the incredible courage of going out, knowing you were going to be killed, in pursuit of an ideal”.

I mention that some people would consider that not courage but madness.

“It may well have been, but it’s the madness of George Washington taking on the British army, it’s the madness of the French Revolution. That’s how revolutions begin.”

I bring him back to his admiration of the Proclamation of Independence and suggest that any commemoration of 1916 will have to face the fact that the struggle for independence wound up with partition.

“I personally would love to see a united Ireland. I think this country has been stymied because of the lack of a united Ireland. I think the Irish Republic has suffered greatly as a result of a sort of Little Ireland mentality, that Northern Ireland wasn’t part of this island for sixty, seventy years, and I think that historically partition will be seen as the greatest mistake, as it was in India, by the British, and any other country they partitioned. It doesn’t work. It doesn’t work as a long-term solution to anything, and it didn’t work in Ireland.”

He’s a man of very firm views, delivered with a pleasant smile. When we talk about the Battle of the Somme,once more there are no ifs and buts.

“The First World War was an absolutely catastrophic event that should never have happened. Thousands and thousands of Irish people - Northern Irish Protestants and Irish Catholics -  died needlessly. The First World War was complete disaster, the Battle of the Somme was a complete disaster.”

But does he not see that a case can be made for the courage and devotion of the men who gave their lives in the Great War?

“I see a case for retroactively court-martialling the British Chief-of-Staff, General Haig - that’s what I see. I  think the courage of the men who died should be remembered because they were cannon fodder. They lived in a very different era where men were sent forth to die so that generals could draw lines on maps”.

He’s convinced that commemorating the Somme or 1916 or the Ulster Covenant need not deepen division here. If the Troubles were still ongoing, it’d be a different matter.

“We’ve moved on with the Good Friday Agreement, the power-sharing government, the intervention of the United States, the intervention of the Irish and British governments, the extraordinary achievement of the Irish peace process. When history is written, this era will be remembered as a golden era, because of what was accomplished by the Irish peace process, which ended the longest-running warfare in Europe. In fact it’s seen as the defining event as to how things could happen elsewhere in the world. So it’s something we should be very proud of.”

Friday, 30 November 2012

Peter Robinson: are you the Captain in disguise?

Peter Robinson doesn’t look like Terence O’Neill and he doesn’t sound like him (OK, maybe a smidgen of nasal-tone match) but in his  DUP conference  speech he reminded me of the Captain.

For the benefit of the younger members of our audience, Captain Terence O’Neill was the top man of unionism in the 1960s. Most people remember him for his famous Crossroads speech, of which nobody took a blind bit of notice. Some people remember him for inviting An Taoiseach Sean Lemass,up to Stormont for a cup of tea. Myself, I remember him as the Man Who Visited Convents. One minute, he’d never been near one, next you couldn’t open a newspaper but you’d see Terence  flanked by a set of smiling nuns. No, Virginia, Captain O’Neill was not thinking of converting to Catholicism. He was in those convents in search not of faith but votes.  Catholic votes. Alas, Catholics started demanding civil rights instead and then the balloon went up.

You may wonder why O’Neill wanted Catholic votes.  Hadn’t he more than enough votes from Protestants/unionists? He had.  But maybe the Captain figured the demographics, long-term, were against him.  Or maybe he felt nervous with this large undigested section of the population straining in the opposite direction from him and unionism. You may be sure he wasn’t looking for Catholic votes because he really, really liked Catholics. He wanted their votes because he was convinced it’d be in the interests of unionism.

Which brings us to Peter Robinson’s speech. In it, Peter scoffed at the idea of having a border poll and declared more Catholics than ever before are now happy to remain in the United Kingdom. 

Those two statements surprised me, coming from Peter. I’ve always thought of  him as a man of logic.  On the few occasions when he tried making gestures towards the emotional or dramatic,  like wearing an Ulster Resistance beret or breaking windows in Clontibret, he just looked silly. So it baffles me how he could hold those two views in his head simultaneously: (i)  a border poll is laughable and (ii) more Catholics than ever want to stay in the union.

John Taylor,  the greatest leader  unionism never had, used to say the second bit - that lots of Catholics were happy as pigs in muck with the present set-up. But he never added “And a border poll would be ridiculous”.  Peter, in contrast, did.  Which pushes to centre-stage the obvious question: what better time for a unionist to have a border poll than when loads of Catholics are in favour of the union? Think what it’d mean if the union got a resounding Yes from tens of thousands of Catholics: a major - perhaps the major plank in Sinn Féin’s platform would have been sawn clean off.  If I thought like Peter, I’d be yelling “Bring it on, right now!”  And were he to do so, I’d be the first to clap him on the back. Not because I have access to the voting intentions of Catholics ( which Peter appears to have) but because I think we should dealing in realities and not dreams. 

For fifty years, successive Irish governments in the south dodged reality, particularly the reality of the border. They gave impressive speeches about the need to strive for the historical goal of a united Ireland, but they never stirred a finger to help achieve that goal. So let’s all, unionist and anti-unionist, try not to sink to that hypocritical level.

Because here’s the thing: a border poll would tell us all where we stood. Peter is confident any referendum on constitutional change would be resoundingly defeated. Maybe he’s right. Or maybe he’s wrong. But if we had the actual wishes of the people, we’d know where we stand. If a majority favours continued union with Britain, then nationalists and republicans will have to go off and have a rethink.   If, however, the poll indicated that Peter was wrong and that a majority of people are in favour of a re-united Ireland, then their wishes, in line with the Good Friday Agreement, will have to be acted on.

One thing’s sure: driving into the future with your headlights switched off isn’t just silly. It’s dangerous.